By Mirriam Mangwaya
THE world recently commemorated the International Nurses Day. In Zimbabwe, nurses celebrated their profession under grim conditions of a collapsing health system characterised by a shortage of drugs, inadequate equipment, massive brain drain and poor remuneration.
NewsDay senior reporter Miriam Mangwaya (ND) caught up with Douglas Chikobvu (DC), the co-founder of the Zimbabwe Professional Nurses Union (ZPNU) to discuss the state of affairs in the health sector.
ND: What is the role of the Zimbabwe Professional Nurses Union in the country?
DC: ZPNU is an alternative union birthed due to deep-seated challenges faced by nurses. I co-founded the organisation in 2017 together with author and public speaker Robert Emmanuel Chiduku and Freeborn Dhlakama.
The union received government recognition as a nurses’ union in 2018. ZPNU is a nurse-driven union key in improving the well-being of its membership and that of the community and stakeholders.
The aim of ZPNU is to transform the lives of Zimbabwean nurses who wallow in abject poverty courtesy of government’s failure to pay them a living wage. Therefore, as a nurse’s voice, the union aims to engage the government through all progressive means and ways till nurses get a respectable living wage.
Furthermore, the union is coming up with a lot of projects for nurses so that nurses get extra income. The key focus is to encourage nurse entrepreneurship by helping nurses open their own clinics, maternity homes and many other things thereby complementing government efforts in improving access to healthcare for Zimbabweans.
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The union offered bereavement funds and medical funds to its membership country-wide. The major success of ZPNU is its ability to deliver on its mandate.
ND: You said ZPNU is promoting entrepreneurship among the health workers. Will, it not divide the attention of the nurses and distract them from committing to civil service work?
DC: By law, nurses are allowed to run their own clinics. Nothing will divert their commitment, just like other health professionals who are managing both their private institutions and the public institutions. Projects are key in creating extra income for themselves.
We have set aside funds for poultry and rabbit keeping and have also identified possible markets for them. We have seen that entrepreneurial skills have been lacking in our members, thereby leaving them depending on and exposed to government measly wages.
We want our members to enjoy financial stability and also do a private practice like other health practitioners are doing by opening clinics and surgeries. We are working on modalities to open clinics for our members like what our counterparts are doing.
ND: How would you describe the nursing profession in the Zimbabwean context?
DC: The nursing bar is still a top-notch qualification. This has seen our nurses tracked and looked for globally.
Zimbabwe nurses do not struggle to get jobs abroad, resulting in the health system suffering a brain drain, as the government has over the years failed to pay nurses a living wage.
However, when we look at our hospitals, the services in most government hospitals and clinics are pathetic due to a dire lack of basic tools of the trade, measly wages imposed on healthcare workers, rampant corruption, embezzlement of funds and all that have impacted negatively.
The government funding still falls far below the recommended 15% Abuja Declaration agreement on health financing. The government should, therefore, invest more to capacitate, revitalise and revamp our healthcare system.
ND: Countries across the globe celebrated International Nurses Day recently. What were the Zimbabwean nurses celebrating?
DC: The International Nurses Day was commemorated on the 12 of May, the day Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern-day nursing was born. It is a historic and monumental day for nurses globally.
However, Zimbabwean nurses took these commemorations to look back, reflect and moot how best they can rise above adversity, especially in an environment where they don’t have basic tools of the trade and are underpaid.
As ZPNU, the commemoration was held in Matabeleland South, Gwanda under the theme, ‘Nurses turning a crisis into a legacy’. We want our members to defy the odds and continue to do their best despite the hardships they are facing.
They must look for opportunities amid this turbulence and ensure that they remain committed to their work and continue saving lives.
We took this day to remind the government of the need to revive our once glorious healthcare.
ND: Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as frontline workers, nurses are at a greater risk to be affected by the pandemic than ordinary persons. How did the nurses manage to soldier on despite various challenges?
DC: Nursing is a calling. Some scholars define nursing as a profession of profession. Nurses have a calling to save lives and offer all their best for humanity. The pandemic took a toll on most frontliners as they bravely fought to contain it with limited resources at their disposal. Some were at the frontline without personal protective equipment.
Some worked for longer hours when others had gone down after contracting the disease. We managed to contain COVID-19 although we lost our beloved fellow nurses, doctors and other frontliners. May the souls of all frontliners who succumbed to COVID-19 rest in eternal peace. Currently, we have well-wishers who are working with nurse unions in providing counselling sessions to all nurses who lost their beloved nurses and relatives.
Some health practitioners like clinical psychologist Julia Mutambara are offering free counselling sessions to all frontliners who were traumatised by their experiences with the respiratory disease.
ND: Nurses working in rural health institutions have bemoaned marginalisation by the government on the improvement of their working conditions. Is there a difference in working conditions between nurses in rural areas and those in urban areas?
DC: Definitely, working conditions for urbanite nurses and those in rural areas are really different. Most rural health institutions lack clean water, electricity, equipment and other key medical consumables to deliver a quality health service.
Barriers to healthcare in rural areas are real and serious. This has caused high maternal mortality among other challenges. Some clinics are inaccessible due to poor road networks which is also affecting how nurses deliver their duties and also access to health by the locals.
The government should electrify rural clinics, ensure clean safe water supply and timely pay rural allowances to our nurses. Availability of drugs at all health institutions throughout the country should be the government’s number one priority.
ND: There are serious concerns about the deplorable state of the health delivery system on accessibility of drugs, equipment and low staff complement generally. How can that be addressed?
DC: Government commitment is key in solving the broader challenges haunting our public healthcare delivery.
This commitment can then cascade to government partners and the general citizens. Our government should finance our healthcare institutions, provide advanced tools of the trade, buy cancer machines, build more hospitals to improve health access, provide state-of-art emergency services, build and equip maternity theatres and pay frontliners a living wage.
Funds released by Treasury for health services should be used for their sole purposes and it is the duty of the government to guard against any possible abuse of funds. This will help address barriers to healthcare.
The government should come up with a raft of measures, among them giving health personnel non-monetary incentives to motivate them to deliver. This will retain staff and stop the brain drain.
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